Parts of Speech

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Parts of Speech


the fundamental word classes in a language, distinguished according to the similarity of the words’ syntactic, morphological, logical, and semantic properties. Autonomous parts of speech include the noun, verb, adjective, and adverb; functional parts of speech include the conjunction, preposition, particle, and article. Numerals, pronouns, and interjections are also traditionally considered parts of speech.

Words can be classified according to the positions they occupy in a sentence. A part of speech will then include all words that can occupy identical syntactic positions in a sentence or that can perform identical syntactic functions. Of importance here is not only the set of syntactic functions, but also the degree to which each of the functions is characteristic of the particular part of speech. The functions are divided into primary and secondary according to specific morphological or syntactic restrictions. Thus, in Russian both the noun and the verb can function as subject (chelovek liubit, “man loves”; kurit’—zdorov’iu vredil’, “to smoke is to harm one’s health”) or as predicate (Ivanovuchitel’, “Ivanov is a teacher”; derevo gorit, “the wood burns”). However, for the verb the predicate function is primary and the subject function is secondary, but for the noun the subject function is primary and the predicate function is secondary. For example, a verb can only be the subject with a nominal predicate, but a noun can be the subject with any predicate. A sentence with a verb subject can be transformed into a sentence with a noun subject (kurenie vredno dlia zdorov’ia, “smoking is harmful to one’s health”), but the reverse is not true. A noun predicate requires a copulative verb in order to express tense and mood (Ivanov byll-byl by uchitelem, “Ivanov was/would .have been a teacher”), which is not true of a verb predicate. In Chinese both verb and adjective can function as an attributive, but in doing so the verb, unlike the adjective, requires the special adjectival suffix -té.

Some scholars question the validity of considering pronouns and numerals separate parts of speech in most languages, since words of these classes ordinarily vary in their syntactic functions and from this point of view belong to different word classes. For this reason they are often considered subclasses of other parts of speech. (In Russian, for example, compare the noun numerals tri, “three,” and chetyre, “four,” with the adjectival numerals pervyi, “first,” and vtoroi, “second.”)

Each part of speech has its own set of characteristic grammatical categories; trie set of categories embraces an absolute majority of the words of the particular part of speech. This serves as a morphological criterion for distinguishing parts of speech in inflected languages. In Russian, for example, number, case, and gender (as a word-classifying category) are characteristic of the noun, and degrees of comparison, number, case, and gender (as an inflectional category) are characteristic of the adjective. In Burmese, however, the adjective and verb are not contrasted in this way, since words corresponding to both adjectives and verbs in other languages have degrees of comparison.

The distribution of words by parts of speech is governed in all languages by certain semantic regularities that serve to differentiate the parts of speech semantically. In Russian the class of nouns includes words denoting objects (stol, “table”), qualities (krasnota, “redness”), and actions (khozhdenie, “walking”); however, the majority of nouns not denoting objects are derived, and the majority of nonderived nouns denote objects. This regularity imparts, to the class of nouns the general meaning of objectness. In the same way, the general meaning of action or state is established for the verb, of quality for the adjective, and of action or quality attribute for the adverb.

The system of parts of speech taught in modern school grammars stems from the works of the Alexandrian philologists, such as Dionysius Thrax and Apollonius Dyscolus, who distinguished nomináis, verbs, participles, adverbs, articles, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions according to mixed morphological, semantic, and syntactic criteria. In this system nomináis included nouns, adjectives, and numerals. (In contrast, Plato combined the adjective and verb on the basis of logical syntactic relations.) The system of the Alexandrian philologists also influenced the Arab grammatical tradition. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, during which logical-semantic criteria were stressed as the basis for the existence of parts of speech, introduced no significant changes into the system. The development of comparative-historical linguistics placed morphological characteristics in the forefront and was responsible for a purely morphological approach to the problem of parts of speech (with the additional influence of the Indian grammatical tradition). The new approach, as reflected in the works of F. F. Fortunatov, denied the existence of parts of speech in isolating languages. In the 20th century linguistics refused, to recognize that word classes analogous to the parts of speech of inflected languages can be distinguished in isolating languages, a fact previously demonstrated by H. C. von der Gabelentz (the syntactic criterion establishes word classes in inflected languages that essentially coincide with morphological parts of speech). With the syntactic approach all languages have parts of speech, and difficulties arising from the morphological approach are avoided (such as the lack of morphological marking in the classification of indeclinable Russian nouns, such as pal’to, “overcoat”).

Parts of speech differ from language to language. The differences concern not only which parts of speech a language has, but also what words are subsumed under each part of speech. Thus, Russian, French, and Latin distinguish nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Several North American and African languages do not differentiate adverbs from adjectives. Chinese distinguishes nomináis, predicatives (verbs and adjectives), and adverbs. In some languages, such as the American Indian language Yuma, only nomináis and verbs are distinguished. Differences as to what words are subsumed under particular parts of speech can be observed by comparing Hausa, in which words corresponding to the adjectives of other languages are in the same class as nouns, with Burmese, in which this type of word is in the same class as verbs. The most consistent contrast in different languages is between the nominal and the verb, although such a contrast has not been demonstrated as universal.


Peshkovskii, A. M. Russkii sintaksis v nauchnom osveshchenii, 7th ed. Moscow, 1956.
Jespersen, O. Filosofiia grammatiki. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from English.)
Kurylowicz, J. “Derivatsiia leksicheskaia i derivatsiia sintaksicheskaia.” In his Ocherki po lingvistike. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from French.)
Uspenskii, B. A. Struklurnaia tipologi iaiazykov. Moscow, 1965.
Revzina, O. G., and I. I. Revzin. “Problema chastei rechi v sovremennoi lingvistike.” In the collection Lingvotipologicheskie issledovaniia, fase. 2, part 2. Moscow, 1975.
Lyons, J. Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge, 1968.


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